Federal Budget Cuts Could Affect Gulf Shrimpers

Fans of the TV show Deadliest Catch know that crab fishing in Alaska is one of the most dangerous jobs in America.  But few Texans may realize that the warmer waters of the Gulf of Mexico can be just as treacherous.  As KUHF Health, Science and Technology Reporter Carrie Feibel found, a program to prevent drowning and accidents among Gulf shrimpers could itself fall victim to federal budget cuts.


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The Texas shrimp season has begun, and the docks in Galveston are busy.  As diesel fuel is pumped into boats, deck hands crouch over torn nets, tying knots by hand.

“There’s a lot of activity, they’re very excited.”

Gilbert Gaillardo teaches marine safety for the Coast Guard.

“They know that in one or two weeks, they’re going to come home with some big money…some big bucks.  Hopefully, if they have a good catch.”

Mike Thinh Do, 47, repairs shrimping nets onboard the Lucky StarMike Thinh Do, 47, repairs shrimping nets onboard the Lucky Star

85% of Gulf shrimpers are Vietnamese.  Accidents remain a big problem.  Boat captains have to learn first aid and complete a 9 hour safety course, but the classes are in English.  Gaillardo says many shrimpers remain confused about how to use flares, GPS devices and even life jackets.

“I still find, during my inspections, that the neck strap is tied, and the waist strap is tied.  They thought that it would be like putting on a t-shirt over your head.  In fact, it’s a vest, so you put your arms in, left and right.  So in an emergency, the whole life jacket is, you know, out of commission.”

Gulf shrimpers die most often by falling overboard, but they can also get tangled or crushed in mechanical winches or other equipment.

“Being on deck here, once the shrimp lands and it loses its oil, the deck gets oily, and standing on it…plus, the vessel is moving, it’s wet.  It’s very dangerous, so a lot of slip-and-fall accidents happen here.”

Mike Thinh Do works on the Lucky Star.

“Of course it’s dangerous out here.  You know?   It’s not an easy job.  You need training.  Your life depends on it, you know?  You will lose your life easily, if you don’t have the skill or the basic training.”

Gilbert Gallardo of the Coast Guard Marine Safety Unit explains to Captain Tran that the life ring should hang alone, free of other obstacles, for quick deployment when a man goes overboardGilbert Gallardo of the Coast Guard Marine Safety Unit explains to Captain Tran that the life ring should hang alone, free of other obstacles, for quick deployment when a man goes overboard

A federal program pays researchers to study how these accidents happen, with the goal of preventing them.  One researcher is Dr. Jeffrey Levine, a professor of occupational medicine at the University of Texas at Tyler.  He says he discovered that many of the shrimpers did not know basic boat-to-boat signaling, or even how to make a mayday call.

“Some of the captains, who had been doing this for many years, expressed to us that they had no idea what those radio signals meant.”

For the past 6 years, Levine has partnered with the Coast Guard to teach those skills.  The lessons are in Vietnamese and English.  Shrimpers receive incentives for attending, such as ear protection muffs to use while working in the engine room.  Trang Vu works for the Texas General Land Office.  He often helps translate.

“The feedback from those that participated was like, ‘wow, this is the first time that we ever had the training that we could really understand.  But why do we have to have that safety equipment onboard, and how to use them?  That could save our lives.'”

But the President’s proposed budget eliminates the funding for safety research in the agricultural, forestry and fishing industries.  Levine says he is confused by this, because commercial fishing is the most dangerous of all U.S. occupations, including mining and trucking.  The death rate is 58 times higher than the average for all jobs.  Levine says preventing deaths and injuries in the Gulf is not just a moral issue, but also a fiscal one.

“To deploy a helicopter and to rescue someone means putting several other people’s lives at stake, and is very costly from a dollars-and-cents standpoint, as well.”

The White House Budget Office says the $23 million dollar program is being eliminated because it overlaps with similar efforts at the Departments of Labor and Agriculture.  Back at the dock, Captain Naan Quoc Tran says the program has taught him life-saving skills, and he doesn’t want it to end.

Via translator: “He says that there’s a need for the fisherman to have those training programs to keep going into the future.”

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